Friday, April 18, 2014

Beware of Artists, Part 2

Several weeks back, I went to an information session after signing up to be an usher for the Hennepin Theater Trust theaters in Minneapolis. I have yet to actually participate in any of their events or do any ushering because I have motivational issues and am not as enthused about the whole thing as I thought I'd be. While ushering would be really great experience, something about the whole organization puts me off and I'm still upset that the Guthrie wasn't looking for ushers. Anyway, during the info session about ushering, we were told about the different programs the Trust is involved in, including The Scene, which focuses on people between the ages of 20 and 30 to encourage them that theater is cool and hip and that they should come to shows. The Guthrie has a program in a similar vein known as 30 Below, which offers rush tickets anytime during the day of the performance to those in the age range of 18 through 30. However, the Trust's program, framed in terms of getting young adults interested in theater as apposed to offering more affordable theater options was interesting to me. Apparently not everyone's idea of a thrilling Friday night is to go to the theater.
But why not? I wondered. Theater has always filled me with excitement from a young age and I always found it engaging. I don't know what led me to it, but it has. However, there are reasons why theater is not always so popular. As a customer at Target whom I was speaking with said, it's hard for some to sit through a show without being able to pause it or get up and grab a drink or food. But there's more to this. In talking about feeling uncomfortable about being in fancy restaurants, I began to think about whether people feel uncomfortable in theaters. Aside from the steep ticket prices at some theaters and the formalities of shows (getting dressed up - though theater attire has relaxed greatly in most places, sitting quietly through the whole show and knowing certain etiquette, which are not usually deterrents but important to note none the less), I began thinking about the structure of theaters and how they are designed. Recalling John Berger's Ways of Seeing in which Berger discusses how art museums carry with them a certain representation and idea of art (which thanks to Robin I was able to remember that this was the text I read this in), I realized how important this is in theater. People who feel uncomfortable in places that emphasis another class's priorities or makes them feel excluded is problematic. So the question is: what can be done to make theater more accessible for everyone?

One way is to think about theater design. I find that thrusts are far more welcoming and engaging than proscenium style theaters, and theater in the round allows for the entire space to be seen, allowing for a revealing of how certain things are done onstage (such as scene changes, special effects, etc). However, that doesn't entirely get us out of the loop of what a traditional theater produces - we're probably still indoors, sitting in the dark, acting as spectators. That isn't to shun theater at all - pretty much every theater show I've ever seen has been like this and I enjoy it, because that's what I'm used to. But what if we thought about theater in yet another way?
Another approach is to go the route of Augusto Boal. He wrote a book entitled Theatre of the Oppressed and talked about ways in which theater needs to be revolutionized and changed so that the audience is no longer a spectator but subjects, "into actors, transformers of the dramatic action" (Boal 122). On one level, this is a bit intimidating to me because it would utterly change how we as audience members interact with theater. Also, as a person who once wanted no part of the action, it's just a little scary. But now, considering I at times have to consciously not think about what it would be like if I could get up on stage and declare that Iago is lying, manipulative jerk, I really love this approach. Boal focuses his work on communities in Sao Paolo, Brazil in order to show them how to use theater as a means to discuss problems in their community, portray their everyday lives, and incorporate and reclaim an art form that had been taken from them while giving them a chance to use their voices in a place where people would listen. "The theater is a weapon, and it is the people who should wield it," Boal declares (122).

One final approach, one that I think incorporates the previous two ideas together is site-specific theater. While traditional theater may "'distance spectators from spectacle and literally "keeps them in their place', in the dark, sitting in rows, discouraging eye-contact and interaction'" (Mike Pearson, quoted in Escolme), rethinking the spaces in which theater is performed can change this interaction. By "consciously rehearsing with a space as well as with text," more thought is put into the location of the staging, be it a parking lot, a warehouse, or a sunny park, and focus is put on how to incorporate that space into the show. By asking "'what does it mean if I say it here?'" there is a preference for the staging that is seen by the audience rather than what is just portrayed in the script (Escolme). What does seeing Coriolanus inside an old warehouse do to the show versus watching it performed in a lush, velvet-seated theater?

This does not go as far is Boal is urging, especially as Boal warns against the way empathy is used in most plays because it can cause audience members to empathize with those who would do them harm and cause them to be swayed into believing an ideological standpoint that they may not have if they had not been emotionally manipulated to believe it. I, however, still like empathy and think it can be useful, as long as one is aware of what exactly characters are asking empathy for. Focusing on something like site-specific theater would allow for Boal's techniques to be incorporated into more traditional theater and, while we should certainly push for more theater like Boal's, at least it would expand what traditional theater can do. In my dream world, a theater would involve opportunities for the more lush, dressed-up nights, casual shows, immersive shows, and lots of Boal's theater by the people (because, c'mon, we all want to be actors. So why not actually have the chance to do it and portray characters you love and now, either from other texts or the texts of your own lives?)

Awareness is key - being aware of how theater affects us and how important audiences are. Theaters like the Globe, which historically have and continue to interact with audiences (because shows are performed in broad daylight and groundlings are literally pressed up to the edge of the stage) have a reputation for interacting with the audience a lot because it is impossible to ignore them - and to ignore them would be to miss wonderful opportunities. However, in theaters like the Guthrie - not to say whether this has or hasn't occurred at the Guthrie, I'm just using it as an example of theater inside a building that was specifically designed to be a theater - it becomes possible for the theater lights to hide the audience a bit and for the crowd to disappear a bit, making the show less part of the present surroundings and more of a nonexistent fictional space. This can sometimes work out great - because, of course, you can't completely ignore the audience and maybe if you have a rough crowd, this is the only thing to be done - but it also misses opportunities to take advantage of what making the audience less of a spectator and more of an actor in the plot themselves could do.

Minneapolis and London have certain advantage in site-specific theater (or maybe that's just because the examples in the essay I read were from Minneapolis and London). Both cities - and other cities, but of course these are the ones I'm familiar with - have a history of putting theaters into various spaces, taking what's available for them and making the most of it. The Warehouse District of Minneapolis is called so because it is full of old warehouses, but this also happens to be a chunk of our theater district. Though, if you ever come to Minneapolis or St. Paul, we don't really have a theater district because our theaters are spread all over the place, in whatever venue our plethora of companies and groups could take. I like to say that every time I turn around, I find a new theater in the Twin Cities.
London felt much the same way. While there is the West End and it's the best known part of the theater area, there are loads of other theaters around town. Almeida Theater, where I saw American Psycho: The Musical performed, was in a completely different part of town (which I definitely could not locate well on a map; fail) but made for a perfect venue. Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden, while it's surroundings are pretty luxurious, used to be - as its name implies - a banana warehouse (oh the fun facts I learned watching the National Theater broadcast of Coriolanus) and looks it quite a bit. This really added a unique twist to the staging as the wall incorporated in the show appeared to be the wall of the building itself. Anyway, the tendency to take over old buildings and put in theaters is lovely and I've realized that, if money were no obstacle, that's what I'd be doing: buying an old building, refurbishing it, and creating the theater of my dreams (which is vaguely similar to another dream of mine - buying an old house or storefront and turning it into a combination coffee shop/bookstore).

The possibilities with theater, location, and audience are endless. For instance, I watched a great program some time ago on PBS called My Shakespeare where Baz Lurhman, director of Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, worked with a theater director in London to stage Romeo and Juliet with people from Harlesden, to show that Shakespeare can be performed by anyone, even people from a rough part of a city, and to help the people of Harlesden connect with the themes and story of Romeo and Juliet in their own lives. There's also this wonderful article about a production of King Lear by Syrians in a refugee camp. And I'm growing more and more interested in the work of Punchdrunk's immersive theater experiences, especially as they did Sleep No More, which I've heard is a retelling of the old Scottish Play.
It's interesting that the moment I start talking about different forms of theater, I go right back to Shakespeare. This is of course my bias - Shakespeare is my favorite playwright and I know more about his theatrical productions than others. But his plays also lend themselves to be manipulated and played with more. This, as Boal notes, can be very dangerous, but it can also be very positive and powerful. Reading this article written by the amazing and lovely Simon Russell Beale reaffirms what I already believed - Shakespeare's scripts are full of endless possibilities for new productions and different stagings, different interpretation and endless questioning. So, if we're going to rethink the world of theater, why not use Shakespeare as a jumping-off point? Combine that with rethinking other classic theater, new theater works and spontaneous works, and I think we've got a really interesting repertoire to play with. But of course, it's important to remember that theater isn't just performed on a stage. It's performed everywhere, in our daily lives. If working retail has taught me anything, it's that we perform a whole lot more than we think (and there's a possibility working retail has taught me I'm both a better and worse actor than I thought, depending on the acting that needs done). TL;DR: Theater is everywhere and it's for everyone. And it's time to find ways that it can be accessible and enjoyable to everyone. Embrace it, live it, be it.

And, to continue on this trend, next I'm going to discuss the emotional maelstrom that ensued on the interwebs when it was announced that Benedict Cumberbatch was going to play Hamlet. And this maelstrom doesn't involve fandom problems - this time, it's Shakespeare problems. So stay tuned for more theater ramblings ;)

Citations from:

Theatre of the Oppressed by Augusto Boal.  New York: Theater Communications Group, 1985.
"Shakespeare, Rehearsal and the Site-Specific" by Bridget Escolme. Shakespeare Bulletin: Winter 2012. Vol. 30, Iss 4.

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